Refugees:

Actions Needed by State Department and DHS to Further Strengthen Applicant Screening Process and Assess Fraud Risks

GAO-17-706: Published: Jul 31, 2017. Publicly Released: Jul 31, 2017.

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What GAO Found

From fiscal year 2011 through June 2016, the U.S. Refugee Admission Program (USRAP) received about 655,000 applications and referrals—with most referrals coming from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—and approximately 227,000 applicants were admitted to the United States (see figure). More than 75 percent of the applications and referrals were from refugees fleeing six countries—Iraq, Burma, Syria, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Bhutan. Nine Department of State- (State) funded Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) located abroad process applications by conducting prescreening interviews and initiating security checks, among other activities. Such information is subsequently used by the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which conducts in-person interviews with applicants and assesses eligibility for refugee status to determine whether to approve or deny them for resettlement.

Status of U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) Applications Received from Fiscal Year 2011 through June 2016, by Fiscal Year (as of June 2016)

Status of U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) Applications Received from Fiscal Year 2011 through June 2016, by Fiscal Year (as of June 2016)

aAfter receiving an application, USRAP partners determine whether the applicant qualifies for a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) interview.

bUSCIS officers may place an application on hold after their interview if they determine that additional information is needed to adjudicate the application.

State and RSCs have policies and procedures for processing refugee applications, but State has not established outcome based-performance measures. For example, State's USRAP Overseas Processing Manual includes requirements for information RSCs should collect when prescreening applicants and initiating national security checks, among other things. GAO observed 27 prescreening interviews conducted by RSC caseworkers in four countries and found that they generally adhered to State requirements. Further, State has control activities in place to monitor how RSCs implement policies and procedures. However, State has not established outcome-based performance indicators for key activities—such as prescreening applicants and accurate case file preparation—or monitored RSC performance consistently across such indicators. Developing outcome-based performance indicators, and monitoring RSC performance against such indicators on a regular basis, would better position State to determine whether RSCs are processing refugee applications in accordance with their responsibilities.

USCIS has policies and procedures for adjudicating applications—including how its officers are to conduct interviews, review case files, and make decisions on refugee applications—but could improve training, the process for adjudicating applicants with national security concerns, and quality assurance assessments. For example, USCIS has developed an assessment tool that officers are to use when interviewing applicants. GAO observed 29 USCIS interviews and found that officers completed all parts of the assessment. USCIS also provides specialized training to all officers who adjudicate applications abroad, but could provide additional training for officers who work on a temporary basis, which would better prepare them to adjudicate applications. In addition, USCIS provides guidance to help officers identify national security concerns in applications and has taken steps to address challenges with adjudicating such cases. For example, in 2016, USCIS completed a pilot that included sending officers with national security expertise overseas to support interviewing officers in some locations. USCIS determined the pilot was successful and has taken steps to formalize it. However, USCIS has not developed and implemented a plan for deploying these additional officers, whose expertise could help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the adjudication process. Further, USCIS does not conduct regular quality assurance assessments of refugee adjudications, consistent with federal internal control standards. Conducting regular assessments of refugee adjudications would allow USCIS to target training or guidance to areas of most need.

Key Steps in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) Screening Process

Status of U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) Applications Received from Fiscal Year 2011 through June 2016, by Fiscal Year (as of June 2016)

aAll persons traveling to the United States by air are subject to standard U.S. government vetting practices.

State and USCIS have mechanisms in place to detect and prevent applicant fraud in USRAP, such as requiring DNA testing for certain applicants, but have not jointly assessed applicant fraud risks program-wide. Applicant fraud may include document and identity fraud, among other things. USCIS officers can encounter indicators of fraud while adjudicating refugee applications, and fraud has occurred in USRAP programs in the past. Because the management of USRAP involves several agencies, jointly and regularly assessing fraud risks program-wide, consistent with leading fraud risk management practices and federal internal control standards, could help State and USCIS ensure that fraud detection and prevention efforts across USRAP are targeted to those areas that are of highest risk.

This is a public version of a sensitive report issued in June 2017. Information that the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and State deemed to be sensitive is not included in this report.

Why GAO Did This Study

Increases in the number of USRAP applicants approved for resettlement in the United States from countries where terrorists operate have raised questions about the adequacy of applicant screening.

GAO was asked to review the refugee screening process. This report (1) describes what State and DHS data indicate about the characteristics and outcomes of USRAP applications, (2) analyzes the extent to which State and RSCs have policies and procedures on refugee case processing and State oversees RSC activities, (3) analyzes the extent to which USCIS has policies and procedures for adjudicating refugee applications, and (4) analyzes the extent to which State and USCIS have mechanisms in place to detect and prevent applicant fraud. GAO reviewed State and DHS policies, analyzed refugee processing data and reports, observed a nongeneralizable sample of refugee screening interviews in four countries in 2016 (selected based on application data and other factors), and interviewed State and DHS officials and RSC staff.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that State (1) develop outcome-based indicators to measure RSC performance and (2) monitor against these measures; USCIS (1) enhance training to temporary officers, (2) develop a plan to deploy additional officers with national security expertise, and (3) conduct regular quality assurance assessments; and State and DHS jointly conduct regular fraud risk assessments. State and DHS concurred with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Rebecca Gambler at (202) 512-8777 or gamblerr@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: We reported that the Department of State has control activities in place to monitor how Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) implement policies and procedures for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Specifically, we reported that State has established objectives and monitors several quantitative goals for RSCs--including the number of refugees that depart each year for the United States and the number of applicants who receive cultural orientation training. However, State has not established outcome-based performance indicators for key RSC activities such as prescreening applicants or accurate case file preparation. Therefore, we recommended that State develop outcome-based indicators, as required by State policy. In response, State reported that it developed a new monitoring and evaluation framework for RSC activities. As part of the framework, State reported that all future funding opportunity announcements for the RSCs funded through cooperative agreements will include standardized outcome-based performance measures. GAO reviewed the fiscal year 2018 funding announcement and noted reference to such outcome-based measures. In addition, State officials stated that these measures will be incorporated into a revised memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the International Organization for Migration, which manages the remaining RSCs through voluntary contributions from the United States. As of November 2017, State officials indicated that the revised MOU should be finalized by the spring of 2018. To fully address this recommendation, State should ensure that has developed such standardized outcome-based performance measures across all RSCs.

    Recommendation: To better assess whether RSCs are meeting USRAP objectives, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration should develop outcome-based indicators, as required by State policy.

    Agency Affected: Department of State: Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: We reported that the Department of State has control activities in place to monitor how Resettlement Support Centers (RSC) implement policies and procedures for the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Specifically, we reported that State has established objectives and monitors several quantitative goals for RSCs--including the number of refugees that depart each year for the United States and the number of applicants who receive cultural orientation training. However, State has not established outcome-based performance indicators for key RSC activities such as prescreening applicants or accurate case file preparation. Therefore, we recommended that State develop outcome-based indicators, as required by State policy. In response, State reported that it developed a new monitoring and evaluation framework for RSC activities. As part of the framework, State reported that all future funding opportunity announcements for the RSCs funded through cooperative agreements will include standardized outcome-based performance measures. Further, State reported that all RSCs will be required to report regularly to these indicators to measure RSC performance in meeting USRAP objectives. GAO reviewed the fiscal year 2018 funding announcement and noted reference to such outcome-based measures. In addition, State officials stated that these measures will be incorporated into a revised memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the International Organization for Migration, which manages the remaining RSCs through voluntary contributions from the United States. As of November 2017, State officials indicated that the revised MOU should be finalized by the spring of 2018. To fully address this recommendation, State should ensure that it is monitoring all RSCs on a regular basis against such standardized outcome-based performance measures.

    Recommendation: To better assess whether RSCs are meeting USRAP objectives, the Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration should monitor RSC performance against such indicators on a regular basis.

    Agency Affected: Department of State: Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2017, we reported that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provides specialized training to all officers who adjudicate refugee applications, but could provide additional training for temporary officers. In particular, we reported that although temporary officers receive training prior to participating in circuit rides, we found that they sometimes face challenges adjudicating refugee applications. Thus, we recommended that USCIS provide additional training for any temporary officers who adjudicate refugee applications. In response, in July 2017, USCIS officials provided documentation that they updated the Refugee Processing Overview Training Course that certain temporary officers are required to take prior to adjudicating refugee applications. Specifically, USCIS increased the training from 3 to 4 days, with the additional day comprised exclusively of mock interviews. Further, according to USCIS documentation, USCIS adjusted the interviewing schedule of temporary officers at the beginning of a circuit ride so that during the first days, temporary officers observed their supervisors conducting interviews in addition to conducting their own interviews with a reduced daily caseload. USCIS documentation further stated that supervisors are to provide detailed performance feedback to temporary officers during these first interviews. Providing temporary officers with additional training should better prepare them to interview refugees and adjudicate applications.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that USCIS officers effectively adjudicate applications for refugee status, the Director of USCIS should provide additional training, such as infield training, for any temporary officers who adjudicate refugee applications on future circuit rides.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2017, we reported that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) completed a pilot in 2016 that included sending officers with national security-related expertise on circuit rides overseas to help refugee officers adjudicate cases with national security concerns. USCIS determined the pilot was successful and took steps to formalize it. However, USCIS had not developed and implemented a plan for deploying these additional officers. As a result, we recommended that USCIS develop and implement such a plan. In response, in December 2017, USCIS provided documentation that the Chief of the Refugee Affairs Division had authorized the forward deployment of officers with national security-related expertise on certain refugee processing circuit rides. Further, USCIS provided documentation of the standard operating procedures developed for forward deployments. Deploying USCIS officers with national security expertise on select circuit rides should help ensure that USCIS provides refugee officers with the resources needed to efficiently and effectively adjudicate cases with national security concerns.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that USCIS officers effectively adjudicate applications for refugee status, the Director of USCIS should develop and implement a plan to deploy officers with national security expertise on circuit rides.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) provided documentation that USCIS officials conducted a quality assurance assessment of refugee adjudications in July 2017 and analyzed the results. USCIS officials stated that they have plans to conduct an additional quality assurance assessment in summer 2018. To fully address this recommendation, USCIS should conduct regular quality assurance assessments of refugee application adjudications.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that USCIS officers effectively adjudicate applications for refugee status, the Director of USCIS should conduct regular quality assurance assessments of refugee application adjudications across USCIS's Refugee Affairs Division and International Operations Division.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: We reported that the Department of State and DHS's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have not jointly assessed applicant fraud risks across the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), consistent with federal internal control standards and leading practices for fraud risk management. Specifically, we reported that although State and USCIS perform a number of fraud risk management activities and have responded to individual instances of applicant fraud in the program, these efforts do not position State and USCIS to assess fraud risks program-wide for USRAP or know if their controls are appropriately targeted to the areas of highest risk in the program. Therefore, we recommended that the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State conduct regular joint assessments of applicant fraud risk across USRAP. USCIS concurred with our recommendation. In response, USCIS reported that it will work together with State to conduct joint risk assessments by jointly developing a risk assessment framework. According to USCIS and State documentation, the departments finalized a joint framework in January 2018 and USCIS reported that the agencies plan to conduct the first joint assessment of fraud risks across USRAP by September 30, 2018. To fully address the recommendation, State and USCIS should jointly conduct regular fraud risk assessments across USRAP.

    Recommendation: To provide reasonable assurance that USRAP applicant fraud prevention and detection controls are adequate and effectively implemented, the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State should conduct regular joint assessments of applicant fraud risk across USRAP.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  7. Status: Open

    Comments: We reported that the Department of State and DHS's U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have not jointly assessed applicant fraud risks across the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), consistent with federal internal control standards and leading practices for fraud risk management. Specifically, we reported that although State and USCIS perform a number of fraud risk management activities and have responded to individual instances of applicant fraud in the program, these efforts do not position State and USCIS to assess fraud risks program-wide for USRAP or know if their controls are appropriately targeted to the areas of highest risk in the program. Therefore, we recommended that the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State conduct regular joint assessments of applicant fraud risk across USRAP. USCIS concurred with our recommendation. In response, State reported that it will work together with USCIS to conduct joint risk assessments by jointly developing a risk assessment framework. According to DHS and State documentation, the departments finalized a joint framework in January 2018 and USCIS reported that the agencies plan to conduct the first joint assessment of fraud risks across USRAP by September 30, 2018. To fully address the recommendation, State and USCIS should jointly conduct regular fraud risk assessments across USRAP.

    Recommendation: To provide reasonable assurance that USRAP applicant fraud prevention and detection controls are adequate and effectively implemented, the Secretaries of Homeland Security and State should conduct regular joint assessments of applicant fraud risk across USRAP.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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